Films featuring or focusing on food have an appeal all their own

Hong Kong is emulating New York with a small-fry version of its Food Film Festival, but Asia has long had a taste for culinary fare on screen, writes Yvonne Teh

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Sunday, 14 October, 2012, 11:09am

Hong Kong's first Culinary Film Festival is a modest affair. Presented under CineHub, the new concept label of UA Cinemas, and curated by UA film programming manager Derek Lui, the schedule rolled out this month comprises just four films, all documentaries. Compared to the 40-film banquet offered at the New York City Food Film Festival this week, audiences here are being treated to a light starter.

Nonetheless, foodies, film buffs and those who consider themselves a bit of both might wish to check out the Big Lychee's programme, which feature films about three of the world's best-known restaurants - Restaurant Bras, Noma and El Bulli.

Paul Lacoste's Step Up to the Plate is one of two offerings that had its world premiere earlier this year at the Berlin International Film Festival. A portrait of a family that has been devoted to haute cuisine for three generations, it focuses on master chef Michel Bras' efforts to hand over control of Restaurant Bras - the recipient of three Michelin stars each year since 1999 - to his son, Sebastian.

"Cooking is an absolutely incredible spectacle," maintains director Lacoste. And it's an activity "at the heart of the filial relationship", he adds. "After all, we feed our children, don't we?"

Another three-Michelin-starred restaurant, albeit one that has now closed its doors, is the setting for Gereon Wetzel's El Bulli: Cooking in Progress, which also screened at the Hong Kong International Film Festival earlier this year. Catalan chef Ferran Adria's El Bulli is due to reopen in 2014 as a not-for-profit culinary "creativity centre". Until then, German filmmaker Wetzel's reverential documentary is the only way for the public to view the imaginative gastronomic creations of Adria and his international team.

When director Christian Vorting and his crew were filming Noma - at Boiling Point, the Danish restaurant that is the focus of their documentary was rated as being in the lower rungs of the top 10 restaurants in the world. Since 2010, however, Noma has topped Restaurant magazine's list of the world's top 50 restaurants three times in a row, and its head chef and co-owner, Rene Redzepi - who worked at El Bulli during the Spanish restaurant's 1999 season - is considered to be a pioneer of the New Nordic Cuisine movement.

Vorting's fly-on-the-wall film shows the drama that unfolds in Noma's kitchen over six busy months during which its staff regularly worked 80-hour weeks. In so doing, it reveals the relentless atmosphere to be found in this top-rated restaurant.

German writer-director Monika Treut's documentary, The Raw and the Cooked, is the odd film out in the bunch. Where the other productions focused on a single establishment, she took her camera to seven different locales including Orchid Island and Shitiping as well as Taipei and Kaohsiung) to highlight Taiwan's regional culinary styles along with its cultural diversity

Subtitled A Culinary Journey Through Taiwan, the film is a celebration of the varied cuisines of the island.

"Eight years ago, when I was in Taiwan for the first time, I only knew that the island was the Asian paradise for gourmets," Treut says. "Now, I miss Taiwanese food terribly when I'm back in Germany and I even bought a cookbook to recreate authentic dishes."

In the Big Apple this week, residents will be treated to a veritable cinematic smorgasbord including Ramen Dreams, a short highlighting blogger-chef Keizo Shimamoto's ramen obsession, and Vegetables: Friend or Foe?, a comedic documentary short by New York Asian Film Festival co-founder Grady Hendrix examining the many myths surrounding vegetables.

New York's annual feast began six years ago, when George Motz - the documentary filmmaker behind Hamburger America and host of the Travel Channel's Burger Land launched the festival with partner Harry Hawk.

The food obsessions in the greater China region have long been displayed on screen.

Few people who view director Ang Lee's 1994 production, Eat Drink Man Woman, will be left with any doubt about the importance that Taiwan's inhabitants attach to food and eating.

The mouth-watering conclusion to the Taiwan-born filmmaker's "Father Knows Best" trilogy, Eat Drink Man Woman is a comedy-drama about a widower and retired chef (played by the late Lung Sihung) who spares no effort to conjure up a culinary feast for his three grown-up daughters every week even as he loses his sense of taste.

A number of Hong Kong movies, including two hit comedies from that same decade, also provide windows to the Chinese attachment to food and eating - and the bonds that are formed by people coming together to share a satisfying meal.

Released two years after Lee's film, The God of Cookery has master comedian Stephen Chow Sing-chi (who also co-directs with Lee Lik-chi) playing a cocky celebrity chef who gets his comeuppance before finding salvation in humble surroundings and inspiration in the form of an unlikely muse, then returns to reclaim his place in the culinary pantheon.

Tsui Hark's visually sumptuous 1995 Lunar New Year release The Chinese Feast revolves around an extravagant cooking contest between two rival teams. In his book Planet Hong Kong, film scholar David Bordwell, writes that this film shows that "food … is at once yin and yang, the centre of social life" and the on-screen contest "reawakens everyone to food's role in love and community".

Choreographed and played out in a style redolent of a martial arts tournament, the competition features master chefs who slice and dice food in a manner that brings to mind the actions of skilled kung fu practitioners. (It may not be coincidental that the film's cast includes two actors, Vincent Zhao Wenzhuo and Xiong Xinxin, who are primarily associated with action films - and would go on to have prominent roles in The Blade, Tsui's dark martial arts drama released later in the year.)

For all the many films with food references in their titles, including director Fruit Chan Kuo's dramatic Durian Durian (2000) and the thriller Dumplings - Three... Extremes (2004), it's Ann Hui On-wah's The Way We Are that Bordwell has suggested may well have "more food scenes than any other movie in history".

On the Observations on Film Art blog that he co-writes with Kristin Thompson, Bordwell points out that in the 2008 film "we watch food wrapped, chopped (durians especially), cooked, and consumed. There aren't many Hong Kong movies that don't feature food scenes, but this movie puts eating front and centre".

A quiet social drama set largely in Tin Shui Wai, The Way We Are revolves around three ordinary denizens - two of whom happen to be employees at a neighbourhood supermarket.

It shows them at work, at leisure and often getting together to eat modest yet nourishing and satisfying home-cooked meals.

And it is in those seemingly routine occasions, during which gestures can count more than words, that we see the importance we attach to food, its preparation and consumption.